From the Thursday, December 4, 2003 edition
From Heartthrob to Heartache: The Suicide of a Former Teen Idol
Nicholas F. Benton
The tragic suicide last month of a 27-year-old former Hollywood child star and teen pop idol went almost unnoticed. Jonathan Brandis, noted most for his role in the Stephen Spielberg TV series, "Seaquest DSV," hung himself in his Hollywood apartment on the evening of Nov. 11. Discovered by a friend just before midnight, he was rushed to the hospital where he died some time later.
It was a full week later before news of Brandis' "apparent suicide" began appearing on some web sites, and it took another three days for it to hit the print media. The fact the Los Angeles coroner confirmed only last week that the death as a suicide by hanging, with no drugs involved, drew little more attention.
The media indifference was because Brandis was well "over the hill," and despondent over his career, when he lashed out against his loneliness and depression by taking his own life. No suicide note was left.
Hollywood is strewn with the used-up and thrown-out lives of child stars and teen idols. River Phoenix' death by drug overdose just 10 years ago drew international attention because he was still only 23 and had enough talent to keep his acting career intact up to that point.
Only 17 when Phoenix died, Brandis was "arriving" at the apex of a brief career. Like a firework, his career rose and rose, but just as it exploded into its full glory, it quickly faded into the darkness.
Like so many before and after him, Jonathan Gregory Brandis, born April 13, 1976, began his Hollywood career barely old enough to walk. Television commercials and bit parts in TV shows and movies capitalized on his baby blue eyes and dimpled chin. Then came starring roles in a "Stepfather" sequel, "A Neverending Story" sequel, "Sidekicks" with Chuck Norris, "Ladybugs" with Rodney Dangerfield and the "Seaquest" series. For a brief few years, his picture adorned the cover of all the teen idol magazines, and thousands of young girls had his pin-ups plastered over their bedroom walls.
But with all that went his childhood and any hopes for a normal life. As was pointed out in the recent VH-1 cable television special, "Bubblegum Babylon," the more famous a child performer becomes, the more his or her circle of friends shrink. Going to school like an ordinary kid becomes impossible. Parents squabble over their child's career and treat him or her as a saleable commodity.
The stories are rife, and so are the unhappy endings.
Those twinkling eyes and winning smile of the teen pop star are too often masking something quite different on the inside, even during the height of success and not only when it's faded.
Former child actor Wil Wheaton, who co-starred with River Phoenix in the cult classic film, "Stand By Me," and had an early career much like Brandis', even to the point that, like Brandis, he had a role on a sci-fi TV series, wrote of his pain at the news of Brandis' suicide on his internet Weblog last week.
"I know how hard it is to make the transition from child to adult actor. I know how merciless Hollywood is. I know the pain, frustration and depression that he must have felt. I know it intimately. The thing is, if I'd turned right instead of left, if I'd taken the elevator instead of the stairs, if I'd chosen differently when faced with one of those 1 or 0 decisions, that could be me you're reading about today," Wheaton wrote.
Almost 100 written responses from Wheaton fans were also posted on the Weblog in response to Wheaton's remarks.
"I am sadder about it than I expected. The worst is to think in how much pain he must have been to make a choice like that, and that he was alone with it," one wrote.
Many wrote of how they'd idolized Brandis during his hey-day, and of their reactions to casual opportunities to meet him. They agonized over his pain and argued over whether or not the suicide was necessarily linked to the decline in his career. Some noted that his parents said he'd been taking the anti-acne medication, accutane, which has been known to trigger suicidal depression. Others noted how many famous stars died suddenly at age 27, including Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hendrix.
But People magazine, in an article this week, cited friends who confirmed Brandis' depression over his faded career and recent heavy drinking, although he'd still been finding work in small parts in small films.
"It's so damned unreal," one wrote about a child actor's brief career in the limelight. "Even worse, when it's over. When I read the soldiers' comments on returning home from Vietnam, and that sense of unbelonging they describe, I think I can understand that pretty well."
Paul Peterson, a former child star on the "Donna Reed Show," founded a non-profit organization in Hollywood called "A Minor Consideration" in 1990, the morning after child actor Rusty Hamer committed suicide in 1990. It's purpose, according to its web site, is "to give aid and support to young performers, past, present and future."
"Children in the entertainment industry are subjected to unique pressures, and many times the images they create outlast the money and the fame. There are consequences to early fame," the web site states, "and several generations of former child stars have joined together to reorganize the structure that surrounds the most visible children in our society."
On Brandis' suicide, Peterson posted this: "We are left with a sense of helplessness and perhaps even anger that this thoroughly unexpected death occurred when we have spent years developing resources to deal with any and all crisis situations. This one hurts. What more can we say?"
In an interview with the News-Press this week, Peterson expanded on that remark. "We've developed an incredible network of people who will let us know the minute they smell someone's in trouble. There was not a whisper about Jonathan. All of his friends have told me they had no clue anything was wrong. That's what makes it so difficult to swallow," he said.
It is a great irony that the lack of media attention to the young actor's demise only served to confirm and amplify the tragic bell curve trajectory of his life.